Hannable: There’s only 1 thing that will prevent Patriots from reaching Super Bowl LII

Ryan Hannable
November 28, 2017 - 11:46 am

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

Even though things didn’t go as planned to start the season with a 2-2 start and the worst defense in the NFL, things are back to normal for the Patriots.

After Week 12 the team is 9-2, comfortably leading the AFC East and in a battle with the Steelers for the AFC’s No. 1 overall seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

“We’re 9-2,” Tom Brady said Monday on Kirk & Callahan. “We’re at a good place. I know everything isn’t perfect, but it’s been better than most teams. I think we still can do a better job and we’re going to try and do a better job. We’re dealing with some injuries, and there’s no excuses, it’s just the continuity. I would say it always helps when there’s more continuity. We still have to find ways to grind it out and try and win games.”

Brady is exactly right. 

The year has been far from perfect, but in relation to the rest of the conference the Patriots are clearly at the top. Pittsburgh is the next closest team, but the Patriots have beat the Steelers four straight times and five out of the last six meetings. The two teams will play in Week 15 in a game that will likely determine who is the AFC’s No. 1 overall seed, and does Mike Tomlin’s squad really instill any fear at the moment?

Including the postseason, since 2007 against the Steelers, Brady is completing 72 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and no interceptions. Anyone really think the Steelers have a shot against the Patriots, especially at Gillette Stadium? Didn’t think so.

Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Dolphins on Sunday did showcase the one thing which could prevent the Patriots from playing in Minneapolis on Feb. 4 — injuries.

Although they didn’t lose any crucial pieces, it was a reminder injuries are part of the sport and can happen in any game and at any time. New England saw five players leave the game with injuries and then placed two players on injured reserve on Monday in Martellus Bennett and Nate Ebner.

The year started with losing top receiver Julian Edelman, but the offense was able to make up for his production with Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan stepping up. Hogan has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury and the running backs have done a good job making up for his void. While the Patriots have been able to stay on track despite these losses, they cannot afford another injury because then what? No one is left to help.

Defensively, the unit survived missing Stephon Gilmore for a few games and also has done a good job handling the loss of Dont’a Hightower for the year with a shoulder injury. One of those players who has stepped up most is Kyle Van Noy, who was one of the five injured players on Sunday. It doesn’t appear to be a major injury, but what if he does have to miss extended time? Who is the signal-caller in the middle of the defense? Who can play both on the edge and in the middle?

There have been lots of minor injuries across the board for the defense this year, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has somehow been able to fill in the holes and not see any type of drop off. Sure, besides Hightower it hasn’t lost any superstar players, but how many minor losses can a unit handle before it breaks?

Injuries are even an issue on special teams. Ebner is gone for the season, Matthew Slater missed yet another game on Sunday, and then a number of players who went down are core special teams players. New England isn’t afraid of using starters on special teams, but how many is too many? At some point it impacts the other units and starts to become a team-wide issue.

Bottom line, the only thing that could potentially derail a Super Bowl run is injuries, whether it’s one major one or these minor ones continue to pile up.

From a pure talent and coaching perspective, the Patriots are the best team in the AFC and it seems with five games left in the regular season the Patriots’ biggest competition is themselves and making sure they don’t get hurt.

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